The Easel

19th December 2023


This is the year’s last regular newsletter. Next Tuesday, and the Tuesday after, we will highlight the year’s most popular stories among Easel subscribers. After a break of a few weeks, The Easel will resume on Tuesday January 30, 2024.

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Be impulsive – send your question or comment!

In a recent Easel, I invited readers to send in a question or comment on an “arty topics”. Click on the title above to see a list of thought starters. Our Contributing Editor, Morgan Meis, will combine these with his own musings on the year just past and whip them all into a delightful flummery that will appear at the start of 2024. Comments/questions/views can be sent to me, the editor, at:

Small effort, nice reward!!`

The Triumph of Dana Schutz

A modern redemption story? In 2017 Schutz was excoriated for a painting of a socially sensitive subject. Everyone has moved on – mostly – and her new work is being acclaimed. Intricate paintings, in thick oils, are allegorical, “luridly iridescent moonscapes … giant marionette-like figures with spidery limbs and oversize heads.” Somehow, the impending chaos of all this detail is kept in check by her “stately composition”. Says one critic “one of America’s best painters”.

Vera Molnár: The grande dame of generative art

Molnár started exploring computer generated art in 1960’s Paris when she queued alongside scientists to use a mainframe computer. Inspired by artists like Mondrian, she used computers to explore the boundary between regularity and chaos. Randomness, she said, was a “sort of artificial intuition” and claimed that Mozart used dice to introduce chance into his music. Fêted at the 2022 Venice Biennale, Molnár is widely regarded as a founder of generative art. An interview is here.

Best contemporary art books: a guide for 2023

‘Best of’ lists are always worth a read – fun, often surprising and full of gift ideas – including for oneself. At this time of year, lists of best art books for 2023 are thick on the ground. My pick would be the linked list above, which has a slight UK tilt or this which leans Stateside. The NYT list is comprehensive, while the Christie’s list is hugely eclectic. Others are here, here, and here. A good list of photography books is here and, if you want something for the coffee table, consult this.

Robert Storr, the Bad Boy of Curating, Is Back, With a Large Group of Misfits, To Induce ‘Retinal Hysteria’

Despairing about the world? Storr, a renowned curator and writer, is interested in art that has that vibe – works that “vibrate with panic, uncontrollable anger, out-of-control laughter, orgasmic release”. Reviewers seem non-plussed at his show of provocative, irritating artworks – presumably a sign they didn’t like it. Storr responds, “like is a relatively weak emotion to have in relation to [a piece of] art. I have noticed it, and that signals to me it is substantial and strong.” An interview with Storr is here.

This Manet portrait of Berthe Morisot is ablaze with mutual attraction

A deep dive into one famous painting on which the writer is an expert. Manet was a conventional fellow and married but was bowled over on meeting Berthe Morisot in the Louvre. An affair being improper, he instead settled for painting her – repeatedly. “Manet responded to the sensuous charge in things … as the very flavor of a civilized existence. Without a whisper of doting, [Manet’s Repose] is a lesson in how to love”.

After the British Museum scandal, we’ve lost our faith in art institutions

An English art critic’s summary of 2023 struggles to avoid being a catalogue of art world woes. There have been some positives –notably the stunning Vermeer retrospective. But all those worries. Debate over the Elgin Marbles has turned acrimonious due to British Museum failings in the care of its collection. More broadly, museums are uncertain how to respond to social justice campaigns. Sighs the writer, at least the Vermeer show assures us there is “a huge audience for the Old Masters”.

William Blake was called a ‘lunatic’ in his lifetime. The Getty hails him as a visionary now

This writer gets straight to the point – “Blake was a bit of a nut”. While contemporaries like Constable and Turner gazed idealistically at the English countryside, Blake focused on his own “poetic imagination”. Apocalyptic though his imagery often was, he could also combine “Michelangelo’s drawing, the formal crispness of Raphael [and] Durer’s commitment to printmaking”. Such works, dismissed by his peers, are now thought “wonderfully weird”. Nutty or not, Blake is a superstar.

12th December 2023

A reminder: your questions or comments!

In last week’s Easel, I invited readers to send in comments or questions on “arty topics”. Click on the title above to see a list of thought starters. Our Contributing Editor, Morgan Meis, will combine these with his own musings on the year just past and whip them all into a delightful flummery that will appear at the start of 2024. Comments/questions/views can be sent to me, the editor, at:

Small effort, nice reward!!

Minimalism, Between Art and Life

Short and elegant. What has happened to minimalism? It started as an “act of recontextualization” – taking an ordinary box, for example, and thinking of it as an art piece. The task is much easier if the box is in a white-walled gallery. Over time, minimalism has crept into daily life – “aesthetic minimalism”. “Modernism created industrial space, minimalism showed us how to live in it”. Minimalism is the process of determining the “gesture that connects life and art”.

Jesse Darling Scoops Challenging Turner Prize 2023

The problem with writing about the Turner Prize is that critics feel obliged to be polite about the winner. It is, after all, a prize that is usually career defining. The 2023 winner, Jesse Darling, makes sculptural installations. His work for the prize was described (before the event) as “wonderfully chaotic … everywhere you look, emblems of control are bastardised and made pathetic, rendered more fragile.” Says this reviewer (after the event), Darling is “a formidable artist”.

Strike a Pose

A show of African contemporary photography recently went through London without much comment. This review is a catch up and discusses what makes African photography distinctive. Western photography frequently captures strangers or unusual situations, whereas photography in African hands gravitates to community. “[My predecessors] developed the revolutionary act of focusing on group portraits. I almost always work with friends and family – [it] becomes a personal and intimate exchange.”

A Welcome Weight: The Art of James Johnson

To appreciate indigenous art, one can start by listening to what indigenous artists say. Johnson, a Tlingit man from southern Alaska – and an acclaimed sculptor – explains that the Tlingit don’t think of art as ‘art’ but simply part of their visual language. As he explains his art, which extends to designs for snowboards and sportswear, the relentless innovation that drives contemporary Western art is not part of his mindset. Of Johnson’s current work, an elder said “your ancestors are smiling down on you”.

Holbein Politics Religion And Draughtsmanship

Illiteracy was common in Tudor England. That made painting important because potent images of a leader were an effective communication. HenryVIII hired Holbein, a great renaissance portraitist, to do just that. He did, and with such unparalleled realism that he became the “image maker of the Tudor court”. Tudor England was, of course, full of political intrigue, so being the King’s Painter required subtlety, an ever-so-careful balancing act between the truth that Holbein saw and the truth that Henry VIII preferred.

Amber dextrous

A straightforward piece, but its exotic subject – amber – gives it lustre. Amber is fossilised tree resin which, for obscure reasons, was especially prevalent in the Baltic Sea. A show in Paris, 20 years in the making, boasts exquisite pieces that showcase amber’s colour (“every shade of the sun from dusk to dawn”) and the extraordinary craftsmanship lavished on it. Carved amber’s zenith was in 17th century Prussia when it was seen as the perfect way to buy influence.